While Blair toyed with the idea of welfare reform in 1997, Clinton's 1996 legislation (which made benefits only temporary rather than an open-ended State commitment), while not perfect, has been fantastically successful. Surprise surprise - all those poor unemployed and single parents, the most excluded and victimised, let down by society etc etc were quite capable of finding jobs, once they realised the benefits had an end date.
As City Journal's Kay Hymowitz pointed out, it didn't get a good press from the poverty lobby.
It seems a good time to remember the drama—make that melodrama—that the bill unleashed in 1996. Cries from Democrats of “anti-family,” “anti-child,” “mean-spirited,” echoed through the Capitol, as did warnings of impending Third World–style poverty: “children begging for money, children begging for food, eight- and nine-year-old prostitutes,” as New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg put it. “They are coming for the children,” Congressman John Lewis of Georgia wailed—“coming for the poor, coming for the sick, the elderly and disabled.” Congressman William Clay of Missouri demanded, “What’s next? Castration?” Senator Ted Kennedy called it “legislative child abuse,” Senator Chris Dodd, “unconscionable,” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan—in what may well be the lowest point of an otherwise miraculous career—“something approaching an Apocalypse.”
Other Washington bigwigs took up the cry. Marion Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund called the bill “national child abandonment” and likened it to the burning of Vietnamese villages. Immediately after President Clinton signed the bill, some of his top appointees quit in protest, including Edelman’s husband, Peter, who let loose with an article in The Atlantic Monthly titled, “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done.” No less appalled, the Chicago Tribune seconded Congresswoman Carol Moseley Braun’s branding the bill an “abomination.” And while in 2004 the New York Times lauded the legislation as “one of the acclaimed successes of the past decade,” the editors seem to have forgotten that they were irately against it before they were for it, pronouncing it “draconian” and a “sad day for poor children.”
Now - who would have thunk it ? Nu Lab guru and aothor of the terminally boring "The State We're In", Will Hutton, has become a convert.
We know now that it has worked even better than its architects imagined, with major implications for the way welfare systems will be designed in future and for the wider politics of social spending. According to the Brookings Institution's Ron Haskins, the numbers claiming benefit in the United States have shrunk by 60 per cent and there has been a 30 per cent increase in single mothers at work. The incomes of the families formerly claiming benefit, mainly headed by women, have risen, sometimes dramatically.
The poverty rate among black children and children in female-headed families in 2000 fell to its lowest recorded level. Since 1995, the Index of Child and Youth Well-being has improved almost every single year. In 2000, the number of children being placed for fostering fell for the first time since 1980 and has continued falling. There has been a social revolution. The welfare mom has become the working mother. Even cases of child maltreatment have fallen.
The major conservative criticism of PRWORA (Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) is that it didn't address the problems of the fatherless child, and by converting single mothers on benefit to working single mothers took small children away from their only parent.
But Blair bottled it when he sacked Frank Field. In those days he just couldn't bear the potential for bad press. He's changed now, but it's all too late for Britain's underclass.